Growing Potatoes on Mars

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Mars has regained its stardom on Earth in these last few weeks. First, there was that big buzz about water detected on the red planet, and then there is the blockbuster movie The Martian that’s taking the theatres by storm. On a third dimension, there is NASA’s interest to undertake manned missions to Mars in the next few decades, sometime in the 2030s (are we bringing Aldous Huxley’s book to life?). And when such is the intrigue surrounding Mars, the patent world can’t be far behind.

In the movie The Martian, astronaut Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) is forced to survive on the hostile red planet after his team believes him dead and aborts the Mars mission. With Watney’s supplies depleting quickly, he begins devising ways to plant potatoes on Martian soil in a greenhouse using his own metabolic waste. Now, patent US8978293 granted in March 2015, describes a process for the production of useful materials to sustain manned space missions on Mars.

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The invention describes a process for producing oxygen, water, carbon monoxide, ammonia, and nitrogen-based fertilizers, edible biomass, vegetables to make the manned space missions completely self sustainable.

Domes that can be used as greenhouses are installed for growing plants. Photovoltaic panels are also installed to produce energy needed in the dome for plants.  The two important units in this invention are the units for the extraction of the atmospheric water of Mars from the Martian atmosphere, and the unit for the separation and pressurization of atmospheric CO2.  Maintaining correct pressure is important for plant survival, and considering very low surface pressure of mars, pressurizing the greenhouse with atmospheric CO2 is crucial.

Extracted water, nitric acid (OSTWALD process) and regolith are mixed in a reactor (nitric acid is used to lower PH of water thus enhancing mass transfer) for mass transfer of macro and micro nutrient (P, S, C, Fe, Mg, Si, etc.) from the regolith to the liquid phase.  The liquid is filtered and can be used as culture broth. Culture broth integrated with nitrogen-based nutrients, along with extracted CO2, nitric acid and inoculums (brought from earth) is fed into a reactor for the production of algal biomass and oxygen. Dehydrated algal biomass can be used as food/dietary supplements. The used culture broth along with ammonium nitrate, regolith, human metabolic waste can further be used to grow the plants in the domes.

DT2The international patent application (WO2012014174A2 / US 20130118112) describes a technology to build structures (civil/industrial) in situ to mechanically protect potential damage provoked by hits of meteorites and/or solids transported during the usual dust storms that characterize the Martian environment.

The patent US8159357 published on April 2012, describes a method/apparatus for prospecting for water ice on heavenly bodies such as mars with the apparatus consisting of a water ice detector unit. The apparatus is attached at the end of any robotic arm equipped lander or rover spacecraft; the water ice detection unit inserts electrodes into or against a potential water ice deposit and confirms the presence of water ice by making combination impedance and thermal conductivity measurements.

There are at least seven design patents about MARS rover design filed between 1996 to 2009 (USD488093, USD487715, USD673482, USD437255, USD394040, USD673482 and USD679646).Most of these design patents are filed by California Institute of Technology and are under  NASA – CIT contract.

This is just the beginning of an interesting era of interstellar exploration, and patents are already running alongside imaginative movies. With a manned Mars mission planned for the near future, it’s a matter of time before Mars is drawn to the courts in legal patent battles.

(Featured image source: https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Concept_Mars_colony.jpg)

Divyateja Adapala
Divyateja Adapala

A marathoner who enjoys biking along the LA coastline, Divyateja's observant eye shows her what gives a miss to the common spectator. And you get to read about those interesting insights in her blog.


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